Thoughts and views

Crisis of Complexity Reaches Crescendo

By Irene Etzkorn on Jul 23, 2014

I am feeling disheartened and disillusioned. Each day, I hear people lamenting how difficult it is to make decisions about their finances and their health: smart people, old people, healthy people, wealthy people, heroic people, ordinary people. No one feels confident that their insurance is adequate, their retirement is secure, their children’s education is funded or their medical care assured.

The dynamic between citizens and the U.S. government has now become one in which people must jump through hoops to access government services and benefits, such as Social Security retirement, veterans’ health care and student loans. Last year Alan Siegel and I co-authored a book entitled, Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity. We pointed out how confusion in the commercial marketplace costs consumers and businesses.

Even more alarming is the distance that is growing between citizens and our government as our services become inaccessible due to arcane rules, mountains of paperwork and pages of legalese. Democracy relies upon trust, which is accomplished through clarity. Complexity, on the other hand, creates suspicion and confusion.

Soldiers feel hoodwinked when they serve their country and then get trapped by a blizzard of 613 forms across 18 agencies when they seek assistance. Workers toil for 40 years and then find they can’t understand how and when to access their long-awaited Social Security retirement income.

Over the past 25 years, the government has actively promoted self-reliance and encouraged citizens to make their own choices. But now that we must decide, there is such a maze of confusion that no one can be confident that they are making an informed and wise choice.

Companies have sprung up just to help retirees figure out when to take their Social Security, whether to collect on their own or their spouse’s earnings and whether to earn additional income while retired. Thousands of dollars are at stake as mind-numbing rules pile up, one contradicting the other.

When we reach age 65, we can turn to the Medicare Handbook but the official, 152-page Medicare & You only makes evident how convoluted the Medicare system is and presents another wave of endless choices. The young are similarly affected. The FAFSA form used to request college financial aid has more than 100 questions—the length of the 1040 income tax form.

What can we do about this? Complain to our legislators and the White House while voting accordingly. Some politicians are listening and responding. Just last week, Senators Lamar Alexander and Michael Bennet announced they are introducing legislation to slash the FAFSA to just two questions concerning family size and income, since all other relevant financial characteristics are derived from those two factors. This is precisely the type of innovative and pragmatic response we need.

Across the board, we need to approach access to all significant government services with a blank slate. Patent applications, immigration petitions, federal employment forms, disability decisions—all of these should be reconsidered using the lenses of empathy, distillation and clarity. Our goal should be the fewest possible number of questions, words and steps that reflect real-world circumstances of use, expressed in plain, familiar language.

We should also use social media to publicize each time we encounter a government “runaround” or wave of impenetrable paperwork. Tweet at confusing agencies and those that exist to gather our complaints, such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Federal Trade Commission and Food and Drug Administration. The immediacy and volume of social media comments will garner notice and response.

A few years ago, the European Union paved the way for consumer pushback by allowing customers to seek refunds and even file lawsuits if they bought unassembled furniture that could not be put together based on the instructions provided by the seller. Until we, as citizens, declare unclear information unacceptable and dangerous, government agencies will continue to take the easy way out. Shorter, clearer writing is much harder to achieve than verbosity. When treated as an afterthought, rather than an integral part of the development process, communication suffers and ultimately democracy is undermined.


Irene Etzkorn is Chief Clarity Officer at Siegelvision and believes complexity is the greatest barrier to progress. Siegelvision helps organizations achieve clarity of purpose, clarity of expression and clarity of experience. Follow her on Twitter at @Irene_Etzkorn.  


The Objective of My Affection

By David Grad on Jul 16, 2014

In the corporate world, a big idea can increase shareholder value, unify employees and drive revenue. In the social sector, it can spike fundraising, galvanize audiences and even create meaningful social change. But, as we’ve seen time and time again, a big idea without a clear objective will almost surely only result in short-term gains.

How many times have you heard a marketing director say, “Our goal is to raise awareness”?

Early in my career, this made sense to me. I would participate in discussions, review a positioning strategy and creative brief, and get to work on how to go about raising some awareness.

Now, after more than two decades of experience in both the corporate and nonprofit sectors, I think differently. I am unwilling to walk away from a meeting with a charge like, “raise awareness.” Now, I respond to the call to raise awareness with the question, “To what end?”

Defining and communicating a clear objective is important for all organizations, but it is especially critical for nonprofits and purpose-driven organizations, which are often faced with limited budgets and staff capacity. Objectives that don’t drive action waste time and money and rarely yield long-term, sustainable change. So, it’s critical for organizations with limited resources to clearly communicate the specific outcome they expect for every project.

Raising awareness is just one example of an objective without clarity, but it is a powerful one. Let’s say a nonprofit has asked for help producing a walk to raise awareness. Seems simple enough. You might be able to get right to work putting together the teams, resources and partner organizations necessary for getting a lot of people to participate. You may even be able to promise terrific local or national press coverage and mentions on influential social and digital platforms. Let’s assume the event delivered on all this and was considered a tremendous success.

More people know about the organization and its cause. So what? How was the event a success? More people are aware of the cause, but are they motivated to do something? Did you ask them to become a member? Volunteer? Donate? How will you continue to engage them in the nonprofit’s mission and the critical steps necessary to achieve it? What clear, simple, measurable action could you ask them to take that would benefit the mission the most?

If those now aware are not compelled to take a specific action, chances are the event and the organization will soon be forgotten. There may be a few highly motivated people who will take action on their own, but why not get more out of all the time, effort, money and resources committed to the event? Clear objectives provide a target for project teams, while strategies to achieve them are the roadmaps teams use for driving and measuring results.

Raising awareness is a fine tactic. It can be used as part of a broader strategy to engage specific audiences, especially in the early stages of an organization or product. Just don’t let it be the place you stop. If after achieving your stated objective you still have to say, “We did it, but to what end, what now, or so what?”—it may be time to push harder for clarity. If you are interested in creating work that drives long-term impact for your organization, before investing in bringing a project to life, make sure you are clear on your objective.

David Grad is a Strategy Director at Siegelvision.

Loyalty360 Publishes Irene Etzkorn’s Article “Confusion Is Undermining the Value of Loyalty Programs”

By Irene Etzkorn on Jul 2, 2014

Loyalty programs are supposed to offer "feel-good" rewards that solidify the emotional bond between customers and companies. Yet, all too often the complexity of the program feels more like bondage than bonding. Companies who allow their loyalty programs to become too complicated to use or too confusing to understand are turning a positive opportunity into fodder for complaint and dissatisfaction.

Siegelvision's 2014 Call for Clarity Survey, conducted with 800 representative U.S. consumers, showed that while 82% of consumers participate in some type of rewards program, 16% have not redeemed rewards because of confusing procedures and rules. Typical of the respondents' comments: "There were too many rules and the terminology for different elements of the program was confusing. It was too complicated and not worth the hassle."

"Hassle" is not the descriptor that should be attached to a loyalty program. Hassle means a company is viewed as inconsiderate, inconvenient and impenetrable. None of these feelings makes you want to stick with a company and buy more of their brands.

Terms and conditions set the wrong tone. The typically lengthy terms and conditions that govern loyalty programs are written in legalese and riddled with exclusions and caveats. They foster a feeling that the member is a con artist from whom the company must be protected. A phrase such as "capacity control changes" sounds impersonal and ominous. Similarly, opening 10 pages of rewards program terms and conditions with a list of "take-backs" sets the wrong tone.

"We [the Company] could:

  • Change the number of points required to get rewards;
  • Impose caps and/or fees on earning and/or using points;
  • Increase program fees; and
  • Cancel rewards."

Immediately, it feels like an imbalance of power and makes a consumer question the value of the program—membership turns from inclusion to exclusion.

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Tiered programs are even more confusing. As companies move to tiered loyalty programs, confusion is also increasing. Almost one-third of consumers do not know which tier they belong to in the loyalty program they use most, according to COLLOQUY’s Fears for Tiers: 2014 Study on Membership Status in Loyalty Programs. Based on responses from 3,077 U.S. and Canadian consumers, the study finds that the traditional three-tier loyalty structure is actually creating confusion among some members and not fostering loyalty. Eighty percent of members in the bottom tiers are discouraged by the difficulty of meeting the requirements needed to achieve top-tier status.

In my book, Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity, I discuss the role of empathy when writing, speaking or otherwise communicating. While the need to protect the company from unscrupulous consumers who might try to "game" the system is often what is cited as a communications impediment, companies also need to see how they look through the eyes of their customers. Loyalty programs need to do three things well to be viewed as appealing and fair: empathize with customers, distill program rules to their essence and clarify redemption procedures.

Customized interactions seem more caring. If a credit card company knows I have an exclusive card but doesn’t take the time and effort to send me the specific terms that are relevant to my account, there is no emotional connection. I am simply one of millions of faceless customers. Similarly, greater recognition of what motivates me could also lead to customized rewards. Convenience might be important to one member while another focuses only on cost savings. Asking me what I want would show greater empathy and lead to greater perceived value.

People need people. Another communications issue is the degree and nature of engagement. Online, self-service rewards redemption removes the opportunity to tell the customer service representative that you are redeeming points for your honeymoon or daughter’s graduation. Moments of human connection should not be overlooked as an aspect of value in a loyalty program.

Don’t kill the buzz. Companies must realize that loyalty programs are based on emotion—rewards, fun, "free stuff." Bogging down that experience with layers of mind-numbing procedures and exclusions kills the buzz for consumers.

Planning rewards redemption has the magical value of "anticipation." As reported in a 2010 New York Times article, researchers from the Netherlands set out to measure the effect that vacations have on overall happiness and how long it lasts. The study, published in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life, showed that the largest boost in happiness comes from the simple act of planning a vacation. In the study, the effect of vacation anticipation boosted happiness for eight weeks.

What to do? Eliminate all the unnecessary complexity from loyalty programs and mitigate what must remain. Most companies tweak and modify small moments of the member experience but rarely step back and take a comprehensive, blank-slate approach.

Customer experience is the culmination of myriad interactions. Every sight, sound and engagement is important. Simple noting the questions and impressions formed by customers during their journey from enrollment through points redemption can be remarkably revealing and lead to insights for improvement. Where was the search function circuitous, when did marketing messages intrude, was it clear how to reach the next tier of rewards, etc.?

Accept the simplification challenge

We challenge everyone in the industry to take a deep breath and remember what the mission of rewards programs is—to build loyalty. Don’t take the joy out of your programs. Adopt a truly customer-centric approach by spending the time, effort and resources necessary to simplify and rethink loyalty program communications.

Complexity is the coward's way out. Breakthrough simplicity requires empathizing (by perceiving others' needs and expectations), distilling (by reducing to its essence the substance of one's offer) and clarifying (by making the offering easier to understand or use). Customers and companies will benefit from all three. Be brave—treat customers as people. Don’t turn rewards into punishment.


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Irene Etzkorn is Chief Clarity Officer at Siegelvision and believes complexity is the greatest barrier to progress. Siegelvision helps organizations achieve clarity of purpose, clarity of expression and clarity of experience. Follow her on Twitter at @Irene_Etzkorn.  


Building Connections: Humanizing the Internet of Things to Gain a Competitive Edge

By Remington Tonar on Jun 5, 2014

As an increasing number of everyday devices—from appliances to cars to thermostats—start transmitting and receiving data, what has been dubbed the Internet of Things seems indisputably inevitable and inarguably imminent.

The Internet of Things (IoT), a term used to describe networks of physical objects enabled with digital communications capabilities, is expected to encompass 26 billion in-use devices globally by 2020. Industrial companies are using connected devices to monitor and optimize their manufacturing equipment, helping them increase efficiency and cut costs. Consumer-facing companies are beginning to connect thermostats, home lighting systems, refrigerators and even egg trays to the internet so you can remotely monitor and control your everyday appliances.

This early wave of IoT devices has focused overwhelmingly on the collection and transmission of data about things—like the number of eggs in the fridge or the current temperature of a house—to people. These capabilities can be immensely valuable, but as an increasing number of tech-savvy challengers flood into highly developed industries, companies will need to find a competitive edge.

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Many companies have already started thinking about what the IoT will mean for them and how they can take advantage of this growing trend. Ultimately, however, it’s not the power of IoT to connect things that will make it valuable to companies and consumer—it is the power to connect people.

Sure, it’d be cool to have an oven that’s connected to your TV and your smartphone so, say, my mom could monitor the progress of her casserole from the couch and turn off the oven from her phone when it’s done. But, this scenario shouldn’t be the be-all-end-all of the IoT. Why not go further and use it to connect Mom and her family, not just Mom and her casserole. When the casserole is almost  ready, the oven could send a personalized notification to Dad working on the car in the barn and the kids playing in the tree fort, telling them that it’s time to come and eat while Mom finishes preparing the meal. Because Mom knows that it’ll be hard to pull Dad out from under the hood, the application allows her to notify him 10 minutes before the kids, who—of course—will come running at the first mention of food.

It’d be cool to have store shelves that could provide notification when they need to be restocked so inventory can be managed more efficiently. But why not go further and use this connectivity to bring employees and customers together? When a customer picks up a product off the shelf or turns it around to read the package, it’d be valuable for the staff to know that someone is showing a level of interest in a product. Salespeople could receive an alert on their mobile devices with a store map and information about the product in question to help them locate and assist the customer in a more meaningful way—not to mention sell more product.

In these entirely fictitious examples, a small difference in functionality leads to a big difference in value. By looking beyond the utility of IoT to connect things to its ability to connect people, companies can enhance their product experience by enhancing the human experience.

As the Internet of Things allows forward-thinking newcomers to challenge deeply embedded industry incumbents, people-focused thinking can be the value-adder that gives companies a competitive edge. Although this principle may seem obvious, manufacturers have a tendency to become so enamored with new technologies that they lose sight of the people using them—and, in a world of connected things, we can’t forget about the most important connections of all.


Remington Tonar is a Senior Strategist at Siegelvision. Follow him on Twitter at @remtonar.

Brevity Is the Soul of Wit and Wealth

By Irene Etzkorn on May 13, 2014

My job title is Chief Clarity Officer and I simplify complicated and confusing things. I know the power of straightforward, meaningful communication and the value of brief emails, short presentations and pithy sentences.

In Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity, a book I co-authored, we identify three key principles to achieve breakthrough simplicity. One of them is “distill.” Brevity is a form of distillation; cutting to the essence of something through editing, revising and honing. It is a difficult task but a necessary one.

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Now the business world is discovering that brevity is worth millions—actually billions. Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky highlighted his $2.7 billion company’s 2014 business strategy on an 8-1/2” x 11” sheet of paper and asked his staff to cut it in half because it wasn’t pithy enough. For him the value of brevity is the focus it represents. Brevity certainly didn’t hurt his company’s valuation; it seems to have enhanced it.

Similarly, Martha Lane Fox, a dot-com entrepreneur in the U.K., was asked by the British government to analyze its digital presence. She wrote a 10-page report that transformed 1700 websites and 772 transactions. The need for brevity is greatest when the problem to be solved is vast and convoluted.

And, of course, the best example is a prevalent one: Twitter. Being simultaneously constrained by 143 characters while freed from the rules of punctuation and grammar gave all of us, including businesspeople, a chance to speak as humans rather than polysyllabic automatons. Without room to say “I am impacting my receivables through multi-channel outreach,” we tweet, “I’m selling online and in person.”

Businesspeople need to realize that there is power in brevity. For something to be compelling, it needs to be brief. Human cognition and memory adhere to few and salient items. We don’t remember much of the thousands of pages of the Affordable Health Care Act, while we do remember catchphrases. DeBeers said “A diamond is forever,” and no husband has ever forgotten it.

You might say, well, I remember vividly the plot and even some of the dialogue of the movie, “Gone With the Wind,” and it runs 222 minutes. However, movies and novels have the added dimension of emotion. A business strategy document could also be made compelling and memorable if presented as a story. Storytelling is an effective tool in business communication. However, it is not as practical or suitable a tool as brevity in most business circumstances.

Psychologists would say that we are striving for “cognitive fluency.” When we encounter phrases that are easy to understand, we become more accepting, more trusting. We instinctively trust something shorter because we sense that it is possible for us to understand it. It doesn’t defy the limits of our ability and we also trust what we believe to be comprehensible.

To be clear is to be brave. As Sara Bareilles sings in “Brave,” her popular song, “I just wanna see you be brave.”


Irene Etzkorn is Chief Clarity Officer at Siegelvision and believes complexity is the greatest barrier to progress. Siegelvision helps organizations achieve clarity of purpose, clarity of expression and clarity of experience.

Branding in Higher Education: The Inseparable Link Between Actions and Words

By Claude Singer on May 7, 2014

Recently, Brandeis University raised a storm of controversy when it rescinded its offer of an honorary degree to women’s rights champion Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It was clear that Brandeis had bowed to pressure from opponents of Hirsi Ali’s view that Muslim values justify the oppression of women in Muslim cultures.

Setting aside the merits of either camp—i.e. those who were angered by the prospect of honoring Hirsi Ali and those who decried the abandonment of a controversial honoree—there can be no doubt that the Brandeis brand suffered.

Every university has a brand—that synthesis of perceived institutional qualities in the minds of various audiences. And yes, universities try to cultivate a brand image that supports their academic and business goals.

The episode’s impact on Brandeis? At the very least, Brandeis will not in the foreseeable future be free to talk about itself (without risking ridicule) as a place of courageous defense of human rights. In other words, in speaking about Brandeis you can take words like “backbone” off the table.

Consider these words from the University’s “About Us”: “Brandeis University is named for the late Louis D. Brandeis, the distinguished associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, and reflects the ideals of academic excellence and social justice he personified.”

Perhaps Brandeis should add “…and offers expertise in political expediency.”

As this example suggests, building a brand in higher education requires public behavior that is aligned with publicly stated ideals. But it’s hard to project a certain image when either behavior or communications can screw things u

Another episode that illustrates how tricky it is for colleges and universities to say something unique about themselves occurred in the fall of 2010 when Drake University launched a marketing campaign centered around the plus symbol: Drake + you. Your passion + Our experience. Your potential + Our opportunitie

What raised eyebrows and sparked titters across the nation was the central visual expression: A gigantic, proudly drawn ‘D+’.

drake university

D+ became—briefly—a big joke in marketing circles. D+ is a symbol for dismal work in academics, of course. Some sneered that Drake should have at least set higher sights and gone for a C.

Drake’s D-plus was a marketing gimmick gone awry. Brandeis’ failure to stand up for its choice of honorees was a lost opportunity to confirm a noble academic value.

Both communications and behavior shape a brand image. The two are intertwined and inseparable. Drake's silly campaign trivialized the unique strengths of this important institution. Brandeis' failure of will compromised the University's ability to project moral strength.

So what is a college to do? The answer is alignment. Based on recent experience with client institutions—and taking into account the disasters at Duke and Brandeis—the most compelling strategy is this: Avoid creating artificial communications that do not reinforce authentic institutional goals and don’t take actions that make a mockery of stated institutional ideals.


Claude Singer is a Senior Strategy Director for Siegelvision. 

The Consequences of Unclear Consumer Communications

By Laura Zipfel on May 2, 2014

General Mills’ “forced arbitration” crisis is the most recent in a series of self-induced corporate controversies over unclear company policies and communications. The consumer backlash ignited by General Mills’ lack of clarity evinces the emergence of “activist consumers,” and underscores the need for organizations to join them in combating the systemic issue of overly complex contracts and unclear communications.

So how does an organization heed this call for clarity?

A closer look at the General Mills saga:

Let’s start where General Mills should have, and answer the question many consumers have likely been asking over the past two weeks: “What is ‘forced arbitration’?” It simply means that consumers waive their right to sue the company. Forced arbitration is mandatory, the decision is binding (a.k.a. the consumer loses the right to appeal) and the results are not publicly disclosed.

Confusion surrounding these arbitration agreements is pervasive. A study by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that arbitration clauses are particularly confusing to consumers, and almost always more complex than the rest of a contract. These clauses often appear in consumer contracts within the financial services sector but General Mills is said to be the first major food company to impose such an agreement on its customers.

General Mills further effected the perception of secrecy, and thereby deception, by failing to roll out its policy changes in a customer-friendly, preparatory and transparent manner. The “quietly added language” caught the attention of the New York Times and a news media blitzkrieg ensued, followed promptly by a firestorm of consumer outcries on social media.


Comments on a General Mills Facebook post of a Cheerio parfait recipe

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General Mills’ next misstep was its decision not to be available for questions or comments. The company’s lack of engagement and unwillingness to hear consumer grievances, combined with its substituted follow-up statement (below), only heightened consumer confusion and frustration.

“While it rarely happens, arbitration is an efficient way to resolve disputes — and many companies take a similar approach. We even cover the cost of arbitration in most cases. So this is just a policy update, and we’ve tried to communicate in a clear and visible way.”

The preceding nonchalant self-exculpatory effort was short-lived, transmogrifying into a litany of clumsy, confuddled “clarifications” regarding what this days-old policy actually meant to consumers—culminating in an apology blog post (excerpt below), which summed up the whole mess with a dismissive, “Not that any of that matters now.”

… At no time was anyone ever precluded from suing us by purchasing one of our products at a store or liking one of our Facebook pages. That was either a mischaracterization – or just very misunderstood.

Not that any of that matters now.”

Doesn’t it? Yes, in fact being “very misunderstood” in its actions and communications is precisely what matters.  Consumers have been felling the corporate-run communication fortresses of the past for the better part of a decade. And what better proof than a successful consumer-driven public squashing of a policy intended to restrict consumers and constrict communications. While it's difficult to quantify the long-term damage of consumer backlash, the effect on the company/customer relationship is real. As one consumer wrote in response to General Mills’ apology blog post: “Too late folks.”

The reality is General Mills’ woes were self-induced and avoidable. The company could have easily skirted a bruised reputation and stayed uninspiring to hashtag zealots (who created this gem: #StopForcedArbitration) and rapacious retweeters. It could have remained blissfully unaware that even a Cheerio parfait recipe Facebook post is not spared the censuring comments of consumer backlash. And it might have even retained its new policy, which was intended to preclude the public disclosure of consumer grievances and prevent the public scrutiny its confusing term changes tragicomically incited. How? Clarity.

The lesson and takeaway here is that clarity should not be viewed as a luxury bestowed upon customers or a failed effort that’s shrugged off with: “we’ve tried.” Whether it’s defining complex legal jargon or “natural” ingredients, clarity is a must.  It’s demanded by consumers and beneficial and lucrative to companies and brands that embrace and exercise it consciously and consistently. And it’s adversely effective in damaging those that do not.

Authored by Laura Berlin Zipfel of Siegelvision

Four Reasons to Simplify Before You Digitize

By Charlene Raytek on Apr 9, 2014

First, let me state that I’m largely in favor of companies who are moving “all things paper” to digital. However, I have some doubts that businesses are getting the full benefit offered by technology companies and their solutions.

A case in point: Recently, a Fortune 100 company implemented a robust technology platform to shift printed customer materials to a digital environment. Long after the business goals were defined and months after proof of concept testing was successfully completed, the company hit a snag on the way to implementation. The moment of panic arrived as the team recognized that its existing communications were being replicated in a digital format, but weren’t being truly improved or streamlined. And while cost savings metrics and technology ROI would likely please management, the light bulb went off around the table as our team at Siegelvision summarized it:

“Simplifying changes what it is. Digitizing changes where it is.”

Great projects always include a diverse team of players—business partners, technologists, finance and legal—rowing in the same direction. It’s rare that a technology solution can’t add value or long-term capabilities. But let’s raise the bar for tech programs. Let’s set some bigger expectations beyond conversion timelines and cheaper document management costs. Let’s provide customers with:

  • Easier access to important data
  • More insights and patterns across data
  • Something they don’t know about their interests or relationship with your company
  • Solutions to nagging service problems, caused by incomplete and confusing information that typically raises more questions than it answers

Missed the conversion train? Now what?

If you’ve recently been through a technology upgrade and haven’t achieved the true impact of simplification, you’re not alone. Increasingly, companies will have to periodically reassess the relevance and quality of their digital communications. Beyond the technology platform implementation, market leaders recognize that communications are organic and evolving and CMOs, CIOs and others business leaders share responsibility for getting communications right.

If you’re considering new technology to give your organization an edge—whether it’s cost, control or capabilities—don't skip the simplification:

Four reasons to simplify before you digitize:

1) Seek out and eliminate redundancy before you begin writing system requirements. If you’re focusing on how quickly you can convert (paper to digital), without squeezing out the inefficiencies of what you’re converting, you’re missing the best part.

2) Build smarter communications. Identify slight variations that convey minor nuances and build robust templates that contain customer-specific variables. Not only does it provide more relevant information to customers, but it also simplifies how business, legal and technology staff can organize workflow, providing savings into the future. You’ll maintain fewer versions that work harder.

3) Eliminate one-size-fits-all generic information and transform it into customized information that underscores the value of your customer relationship. Seize this pre-implementation moment to trap the boilerplate and the monotonous. Instead, refresh your customer service mission to reviewing your corporate identity and voice guidelines. Remember that each and every document and interaction is an opportunity to build your brand.

4) Test before you implement. Without a true commitment to clarity and simplicity, you may be tempted to short-cut research with customers. Our findings have definitively shown that sources of confusion and complexity can be precisely pinpointed with rigorous customer research. More to the point, each iterative draft becomes more effective and customer-focused, saving extensive costs (customer service, claims, reprocessing, etc.) in perpetuity.

As a final thought:

Industry leaders understand that technology is an enabler, but never the communications driver. A $117 million example is Simple, the online bank that distinguished itself from traditional banks by re-imagining how rich transaction data could drive powerful budgeting, spending in one account, accessible via web and mobile. BBVA acquired Simple in February 2014 to aggressively grow its base the U.S. and globally. Simple’s technology interface and data mining is smart, but the clarity of its customer-empowerment philosophy is its heart.

Business leaders don’t ask what technology can do for them; rather, they ask what they and technology can do together. That requires a clear strategic vision to guide the entire enterprise across business lines, technology organizations and service.

Charlene Raytek is a Senior Strategy Director at Siegelvision.

View coverage of Charlene's article on Bank Systems & Technology

To Catch a (Complexity) Thief

By Alex Goldstein on Mar 24, 2014

Like many consumers, I am dazed and confused by complicated contracts, incomprehensible financial forms and hard-to-use gadgets. And who can tell the difference between the jars of mayonnaise labeled as either “reduced fat,” “low calorie” or “light”? Not me.

That’s why I was interested in attending a recent panel discussion hosted by the Financial Communications Society in New York City. Moderating the crowded session was branding icon and simplicity guru Alan Siegel, president and CEO of Siegelvision. Also speaking was Irene Etzkorn, Siegelvision’s Chief Clarity Officer and one of the nation’s leading experts on plain English writing. Alan and Irene co-authored a critically acclaimed book called Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity.

So what did I learn? Complexity is a thief—and needs to be apprehended. It steals money, patience and time. It erodes consumer confidence, which is bad for the economy.

And it threatens our health, privacy and safety.

For example, does anyone really understand the Affordable Care Act? It’s 20,000 pages long. I doubt the legislators who enacted it know what’s in it, so how can anyone else? What about the millions of people who spent countless hours trying to access the government’s healthcare exchange website? Can they ever get their time back?

An interesting finding from Siegelvision’s recently published Call for Clarity Survey shows how confusing product instructions can lead to dangerous circumstances.  Seventy-four percent of consumers said that car seat installation instructions were “easy to understand.” But the truth is that 75% of car seats are installed incorrectly. It’s scary that so many consumers think they understand more than they actually do.

But there is good news. Companies are realizing that simplicity and clarity are essential. They recognize that developing more consumer-friendly products and services will make them more successful. The online bank Simple, which was recently sold to BBVA for $117 million, made this approach its mantra. State Farm Insurance produced a mobile app that allows its customers to quickly and easily file a car accident claim at the scene. And Target rolled out a flattened prescription bottle with easier-to-read labels and plastic rings that can be color-coded for each family member.

These organizations recognize that having empathy, striving for clarity and distilling their messages can shorten the distance between company and customer, hospital and patient, government and citizen—and increase their bottom line.

Delivering on the promise of simplicity isn’t easy. But it’s essential to achieving dramatic results. And it’s the best way to catch—and banish forever—the complexity thief from our lives.


Alex Goldstein is a consultant at Siegelvision.

The Crimean Identity Crisis and What it Can Teach Us

By Remington Tonar on Mar 17, 2014

The crisis in Crimea is a harsh and unwelcome reminder of how vital a shared identity is to any social association—be it a country, a city or a corporation—and how important space and time are in shaping that identity.

The ethnic divide driving the secessionist tumult in Crimea represents nothing less than an identity crisis. Many Crimeans identify as Russian, not Ukrainian. Their ancestry is Russian, their primary language is Russian and their culture is largely Russian. But in the western Ukraine, the majority of the people identify as, well, Ukranian.

Having a strong identity is critical

The ethnic tensions on the Crimean peninsula have concrete historical causes. But it is the lack of a strong unifying Ukrainian identity that has allowed conflicting allegiances to erode civic stability.

The United States, in contrast, is a potpourri of ethnicities. Yet most still identify themselves as American. Our common identity brings people together even in the presence of ethnic and ideological difference. This lesson doesn’t just apply to nation-states, but to any organization struggling to unify disparate factions.

Importance of space and place to identity

The Crimean crisis also highlights the importance of space and place in establishing and managing organizational identities. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Crimea became part of Ukraine, which had previously declared independence from the USSR. This created an uneasy geographical union of conflicting cultures and values. Indeed, the electoral maps of Ukraine show heavy support for pro-Russian candidates in the east and more support for pro-western candidates in the west. This highlights the fact that people are inseparable from place and that their place—and the places around it—impacts how we view ourselves and the world.

Space and place matter. Where your organization is—and is not—shapes its culture and identity. Location and workplace design can enable or hinder community and collaboration. The unwillingness of Ukrainians—in the east and the west—to integrate geographically bolstered the ideological and spatial divides that are now tearing the country apart. To avoid this scenario, organizations cannot let their focus on efficiency and cost reduction create silos or demoralize their workforce.

The times we live in also influence our identity

Intrinsically tied to the importance of space is the importance of time, which informs who we are and how we think. In Crimea, many younger people—even those who are ethnically Russian—identify as Ukrainians, not Russians. In fact, some pundits have proposed that the real divide in Ukraine is between young and old. Younger generations were born into a post-Cold War Ukraine, with its own laws, culture and flag.

The context of the times we live in has a tremendous influence on our ideology and preferences. Organizations can’t forget to take this into account when managing their own identities. They must remember that the world around them is constantly changing and that nobody is immune from such changes. How you relate to one generation of stakeholders—whether they’re consumers or employees—will be very different than how you relate to the next.

Preventing fragmentation and suppressing the rise of factions is critical for all organizations. And it requires that leaders account for the impact of space and time, unifying people across both. More importantly, they must recognize the importance of a strong, shared identity and support it strategically. Ukraine reminds us of what will happen if we don’t.

Remington Tonar is a strategist at Siegelvision.

BBVA and Samsung Bet on Clarity and Simplicity…and Customers Win

By Irene Etzkorn on Feb 25, 2014


Today was a very good day for clarity and simplicity. Major companies in myriad fields are recognizing the operational value and consumer appeal of simplicity. BBVA acquired Simple, the innovative, online bank devoted to all things unlike traditional banking—clarity, customization, visual appeal, and minimal clutter. Samsung announced new flagship smartphones and watches with the proclamation that its customers don't want complex technology and unnecessary features.

As Chief Clarity Officer at Siegelvision and the author of “Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity,” I am heartened to see that others are learning what I have found to be true during my career. When clarity of expression reveals authentic purpose, it creates clear and compelling customer experiences. Using clarity as a compass never leads companies astray. True north can always be divined by having empathy for customer needs, not necessarily their wants.

Samsung is smart to fight companies' typical impulse to give in to customers saying that they want every bell and whistle that can be dreamed up. In reality, consumers find too much choice and too much function overwhelming and frustrating.

Similarly, the online bank, Simple, makes check writing prohibitively expensive because that function doesn't fit the profile of its target customers. Simple doesn't offer every banking product under the sun, but it provides the perfectly appropriate services to its target market of digitally oriented consumers.

Smart companies lead by charting a course while continually using customer research as a guardrail to keep them on course.

The Age of Clarity. Perhaps a new constellation is forming.


Irene Etzkorn is Chief Clarity Officer at Siegelvision and believes complexity is the greatest barrier to progress. Siegelvision helps organizations achieve clarity of purpose, clarity of expression and clarity of experience.


Treating the Problem of Inadequate Hospital Communications

By Irene Etzkorn on Feb 19, 2014

In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Theresa Brown, an oncology nurse, wrote about the inadequacy of doctor/patient communications. She astutely zeroed in on one major point: it doesn’t matter what a doctor or nurse says, only what the patient hears.


In my book, Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity, I discussed the need for empathy when writing, speaking, drawing or otherwise communicating. While the unfamiliarity of medical terminology is often what springs to mind as a communication impediment, several other factors also play a role in miscommunication.

One key element is the context of the interaction. A patient lying in bed, talking to a doctor who is standing over her, is an unnatural setting for conversation. Similarly, the patient never knows when a doctor will appear; as a result she is unprepared to capture vital information. Of course, the anxiety associated with medical news often blurs memories and clouds mental processing, but even just realizing the setting can be revelatory.

As Ms. Brown mentioned, studies show that a doctor sitting down, rather than standing, improves the interaction because it makes the doctor seem more interested in the conversation and less hurried. It also helps when doctors verbally repeat what a patient says to affirm that there is mutual understanding. Providing a pen and paper for patients to write down questions and record answers can also aid retention of key information.

Another communications issue is the degree of engagement. This has become critical with the advent of electronic records. Doctors spend the majority of a conversation inputting data on a computer, rather than making eye contact with the patient. This is a dehumanizing scenario, which is likely to make patients feel that they are “interrupting” the doctor if they speak over his typing.

Lack of time also leads to poor communication. Doctors are not the villains in this piece. Ponder the fact that a dermatologist must sign his name on forms almost 30,000 times a year, according to an article in the Southern Medical Journal, and you can sympathize with their curt interactions. Add the fact that they are working 20-hour shifts in hospitals and the stage is set for brisk, abrupt conversation.

What to do? Eliminate all the unnecessary complexity in the hospital experience and mitigate what must remain. Most hospitals, insurers and healthcare providers tweak and modify small moments of the patient experience but rarely step back and take a comprehensive, blank-slate approach. Voluminous paperwork, repetitive questions, confusing care instructions, multiple phone trees and intimidating terminology all affect the patient experience—often adversely.

A rare few healthcare institutions recognize that empathy is the key to clarity and simplicity. Patient experience is the culmination of myriad interactions—every sight, sound and engagement is important. As one leading hospital found, simply noting the questions and impressions formed by patients during their journey from diagnosis to treatment can be remarkably revealing, and lead to insights for improvement.

Mapping a patient journey illustrates several “hassle factors” that surface:

1      Interminable waiting. Wait times in doctors’ offices are reaching the 20-minute threshold, which many surveyed patients cite as their tolerance limit. The average wait time jumped nationally to 19 minutes, based on a report from Vitals, a healthcare survey organization that analyzed patient-reported wait times in 2012 from its database of more than 870,000 physicians. Updating patients via text or in-person announcements about delays would reduce frustration. Giving them surprisingly useful information (not the typical waiting room video about eating your vegetables and exercising regularly) would also help to mitigate frustration.

2      Annoying repetition. “I told a nurse my entire medical history in the ER and she entered it in a computer at my bedside and then someone asked me the same questions upstairs when they admitted me.” In addition to the annoyance of constantly explaining symptoms, repetition also plants a seed of doubt about the validity and accuracy of the institutions’ recordkeeping.  Faith and confidence are critical in healthcare much as they are in finance. If my brokerage firm asked me to recite the history of all my stock trades every time I transacted business, I would feel mighty uncomfortable. Instead of asking again, tell the patient what you have already gleaned and ask them to verify the information.

3      Jargon and verbosity.  Jargon is intimidating to patients, and unnecessary.. Wake up from coronary bypass surgery and the nurse asks if you are in pain from your “cabbage.” Patients must also ask when they don’t understand—you wouldn’t skip over it if your homebuilder told you he had to “sister-beam” the house.

4      Digitizing complexity. There has been a lot of discussion (and some progress) about the liberating promise of information technology and the power of a single platform for electronic health records. We couldn’t agree more. However, unless we first address the underlying complexity in processes and communications, we fear that this will lead to incremental, rather than comprehensive, change.

Streamlining and simplifying how patients, doctors, scientists, managers and public health officials communicate, transact and interact with each other can deliver dramatic increases in productivity and efficiency. We know this from our work with insurers, providers, pharmaceutical companies and government agencies. What’s also clear is that these efforts can lead to savings of hundreds and potentially billions of dollars each and every year.

Accept the simplification challenge

We challenge everyone in the industry to take a deep breath and remember what the mission of healthcare is: to treat patients. A valuable first step in healthcare reform will be to adopt a truly patient-centric approach by spending the time, effort and resources necessary to simplify and rethink patient communications.

Complexity is the coward's way out. Breakthrough simplicity requires empathizing (by perceiving others' needs and expectations), distilling (by reducing to its essence the substance of one's offer) and clarifying (by making the offering easier to understand or use). Hospitals, doctors and patients will benefit from all three. Be brave—treat patients as people.


Irene Etzkorn is Chief Clarity Officer at Siegelvision and believes complexity is the greatest barrier to progress. Siegelvision helps organizations achieve clarity of purpose, clarity of expression and clarity of experience.


Using Data Visualization to Bring Clarity to the Issue of Income Inequality

By BIll Bonnell on Jan 29, 2014

A recurring topic of political conversation, as evinced in President Obama’s State of the Union address, the issue of income inequality has risen to great prominence.  Not surprisingly, the two political parties disagree about how to attack it, which has become par for the course in D.C.

But it reminds us that, even with a shared objective, presenting the facts in a clear and compelling way is not so easy. It always involves using number comparisons, which can seem abstract to most people. The latest statistic to make the rounds was, “The 85 Richest People In The World Have As Much Wealth As The 3.5 Billion Poorest.” Assuming it is correct, it is an astounding statement. But we all know that when you talk about the world there are a lot of really poor people in Africa, India and the third world. So beyond being a good quote at a cocktail party, what impact does it have on most Americans?

Here is something that really does bring the story home. It is a short data visualization video created by an anonymous person who goes by the moniker of Politizane. Take a minute to watch it.

Wealth Inequality in America

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 3.18.03 PM

The creator uses the following data breakdown to illustrate a shocking fact:

1      What Americans think the income distribution is in the country

2     What they think it should be

3      What it actually is

The surprising thing is that 90% of Americans are in agreement about the first two points. I don’t know what else 90% of Americans agree upon but I don’t think it’s much, which is why it is even more shocking that we’re all wrong.

The video dramatically illustrates the power of visualizing raw data to create a compelling story. How different things would be if the folks in Washington learned to use these techniques to tell Americans the facts as to what was happening in the country. Maybe the 92% of Americans who agree on the issue could also agree on what to do about it.


Since When Does “Simply” Mean Healthy?

By Irene Etzkorn on Jan 28, 2014

How ironic. I read two nutrition-related tidbits in the news on the same day. Ironic because they fit the definition of “one foot forward, two feet back.”

Moving forward, the US Food and Drug Administration is planning to update the nutrition facts label on packaged food reflecting science-based, nutritional recommendations with a goal of making the information as clear and useful as possible. It wants to make the labels larger for better readability. The FDA is also considering more granular detail about sugar, less about fat, and an overall emphasis on calorie count regardless of source. Amazingly, in the US, we have only had mandated food nutrition labels of any sort since 1990, so the effort to keep refining the information to make it more actionable for consumers is worthwhile.

Moving backwards, PepsiCo, parent of Frito-Lay, has dropped the word “natural” on some of its products and instead is using the word “simply.” “Simply Natural” Cheetos (now that is a mind-blowing phrase) has become “Simply” Cheetos, as have Ruffles potato chips. The ingredients haven’t changed.


To me, this is a case of knowing that consumers gravitate towards “simplicity” because they view it as honest, straightforward and healthy. While food companies are facing legal challenges to the use of the word “natural,” they seem to be seeking refuge in another appealing word—Simple. These two words are not synonymous.

Haagen-Dazs similarly latched on to this idea a few years ago when it introduced “Five,” which is ice cream with only five ingredients: milk, cream, sugar, eggs and a flavor such as ginger or lemon. In this case, a short list of familiar, wholesome ingredients is a much better fit with the concept of simplicity.

We respond to the idea of just five ingredients because we assume that they won’t be high-fructose corn syrup, monosodium glutamate, whey solids, artificial coloring and artificial flavoring. Now many would argue that fat- and sugar-laden ice cream is hardly the bedrock of healthy nutrition no matter how short the list of ingredients. So while a shorter list may be quicker to read and more transparent, transparency itself is not the goal—we need to focus on what is revealed behind the curtain.

So, the moral of the story is read recipes instead of labels and cook and bake your own food. But, at the very least, read.

Questioning the Status Quo: Kimberly-Clark’s Continuous Improvement Conference

By Irene Etzkorn on Jan 21, 2014

It was a great pleasure for Alan Siegel and I, Irene Etzkorn, to be the keynote speakers for Kimberly-Clark's Continuous Improvement Executive Leadership Conference last week in Georgia. Being amidst like-minded people who recognize the benefits of streamlining processes, winnowing choices and clarifying products was inspiring and gratifying.  As the authors of Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity, our experience is often qualitative rather than quantitative, so we particularly enjoyed hearing the war stories of a large group who focus on operational and financial analysis rather than on the communications and branding aspects of customer touch points.

The conversations were wide-ranging from how to reduce the proliferation of SKUs to instilling clear communication across a global enterprise. We were particularly intrigued by the questions relating to retail environments. The discussion often turned to the topic of balancing seemingly insatiable consumer demand for “more bells and whistles” while recognizing that consumers often reject myriad choice as too complicated when it is provided.

The Continuous Improvement team exemplified the Corporation’s values—focused on accountability through the use of metrics as well as a genuine willingness to question the current value of legacy processes, products, and programs. As speakers and advisors to corporations for more than three decades, we have experienced many corporate cultures. In this case, we were impressed with the size of the crowd devoted to this topic and the caring hospitality shown to us as guest speakers. The collegial feel of the room and numerous questions gave the impression that the attendees were at ease with one another and used to working collaboratively.  We took away the belief that Continuous Improvement is being positioned as a way of doing all of the company’s business, rather than as a program or an initiative meant to rectify and then be forgotten.

It was a heartening day for us and we wish the Continuous Improvement team at Kimberly-Clark ongoing success as they empathize, distill and clarify their way to breakthrough simplicity in their markets.